High school debate in Canada is a pretty big deal. Well, it is to high school debaters in Canada. There are grudges, rivalries, backstabbing, and the general intrigue that makes life entertaining. In my 3 years on a debate team, I have rubbed shoulders with the greats, and may have even become one. Tournaments tend to follow either the British Parliamentary or Canadian Parliamentary styles of debate. American systems such as Lincoln-Douglas Debate and policy are generally thought to be weird and unnecessarily complicated.
Most tournaments follow either Canadian Parliamentary format, or British Parliamentary. While CX tournaments do exists, they are rare, and generally not regular events.
Canadian Parliamentary Debate - CP debate involves two teams, each with two speakers. One is the 'government' or 'proposition' team, and argue in favor of the motion, the other is the 'opposition' team, and argues against it. The government speakers are the Prime Minister (PM) and the Minister of the Crown (MC). The opposition speakers are the Member of Opposition (MO) and the Leader of Opposition (LO). The PM speaks first, for 7 minutes, followed by the MO in response for 7 minutes. The MC then speaks for another 7 minutes, then the LO speaks for 10 minutes. This is followed by a Prime Minister's Rebuttal (PMR) which is 3 minutes long, bringing both teams' total speaking time to 17 minutes.
Government | Opposition
Prime Minister's Speech (7) | Member of the Opposition's Speech (7)
Member of the Crown's Speech (7) | Leader of the Opposition's Speech (10)
Prime Minister's Rebuttal (3) |
Prime Minister - The role of the PM is to firstly define the terms of the motion, and then construct a case for the government team. For example, for the bill "This House would use military force to bring about regime change in Syria." the PM would define the House as NATO, the UN, or possibly the US. He would also detail what 'military intervention' means - targeted airstrikes, or troop on the ground. The definition would also include the aim of the resolution (which is not always included with the resolution itself). After the definition, the PM details his arguments (usually 2-4) in support of his resolution.
Member of the Opposition - The MO brings out the crux of the opposition case in his speech. This has to be more substantial than "we shouldn't do what Government says"; there have to be realistic negative aspects to the motion. The MO can also present a 'counter-case' where he says "we want the same things as Government, here's a better way to get them." However if the counter-case is only superficially different from Government's burden, this is viewed as an attempt to run away from what they should be arguing, and Opposition will be penalized. After this, the MO's most important duty is to refute everything brought out by the PM. Note that while some of this refutation may be implicit in Opposition's points, simply repeating one's points is not enough. The MO must bring out new lines of analysis as to why the PM's case was flawed.
Minister of the Crown - The debate then swings back to the Government side. The MC may bring out one or two constructive arguments for Government, but the most important ones should have come out in the PM's speech. Some MC's like to spend 7 minutes telling the other side why they are wrong, and don't bring out points at all. Not only must the MC refute the Opposition case, but they must also rebuild the PM's points, and show the judges why they are still relevant in the debate.
Leader of the Opposition - The longest speech in the round (and often the most fun) is the LO's. The LO generally brings out one or two constructive points, but again most of the Opposition case should have come out in the earlier speech. This is in order to give the Government team a fair chance to respond to the most important arguments. If the LO has too many constructive arguments (known as an 'LO dump') the opposition team will be penalized. The LO has to once again refute everything said by government down the bench, but should avoid simply repeating previous arguments against it. Every speech is required to have new content and analysis, if not necessarily new points. Finally, the LO is expected to spend the last three to four minutes summarizing, or 'thematisizing' the debate. This involves reviewing all the points made so far, and the key issues discussed, and why they fell in favor of the Opposition. For example, in the debate about military intervention in Syria, the most controversial questions would probably be "At what cost will this end the conflict?" and "Will this be good for Syria in the future?"
Prime Minister's Rebuttal - The PM then has 3 minutes to reply to the LO's speech, generally by doing an analysis of the themes of the debate himself. If there were any new arguments to be refuted, the PM can do that here, although it is generally advisable to include your refutation under your meta-analysis of the debate because of the brevity of this speech.
Points of Information - PoI's, as they are called, are when a member of an opposing team stands up during one's speech to question something in one's case. In the PM, MO, and MC's speeches the first and last minutes are 'protected time' and PoI's cannot be offered. For the LO, the first minute and last four minutes are protected. The PMR is entirely protected, so both teams have the same amount of protected and open time. A PoI should generally be framed as a concise (less than 20 seconds) question. General etiquette is to stand up with one hand outstretched, palm upwards, and the other on the back of one's head. This supposedly comes from back when judges wore those big powdery white wigs, and had to hold onto them while standing up lest they slip off in the middle of a courtroom. PoI's are effective ways of pointing out flaws in a case as it is being made, but abusing them by offering them too often is considered obnoxious. The rule of thumb is to 'give two, take two' in a round of debate.
Tournaments begin as early in the school year as September. They can broadly be divided into high school tournaments and university tournaments.
(Note: This section covers the public debate circuit. There are private tournaments, such as the Fulford League, which only 'independent' schools can attend by invitation. Lacking the $31,000 annual tuition required to attend such a school, I have not competed in them.)
High School Tournaments:
The Big Players in debate tend to send their less experienced speakers and junior teams to high school tournaments for practice. Experienced debaters can participate in these, but often choose to attend as judges instead. There is usually a team cap of 8 teams per school, although this is flexible. The most well known of these are the Thornhill Secondary School Open Tournament (held in October), and the Northern Secondary School Tournament (generally held in November, delayed this year due to the teachers union debacle and a surprisingly low club bank balance). These tournaments follow the Canadian Parliamentary style of debate.
Regional tournaments are also held at schools in each 'debate region' in order to qualify for a provincial tournament. Provincial tournaments are often held at private schools in collaboration with the provincial debating bodies, such as the Ontario Students Debating Union (OSDU) in Ontario. A set number of teams from each province qualify from their respective provincial tournaments to attend the Canadian National Debate Championships, held anywhere but Toronto every year. These regional and provincial competitions are attended by experienced teams who want to get to Nats.
Many Canadian universities hold tournaments for high school students, and charge exorbitant 'registration fees' that go towards their alcohol-fueled activities for the rest of the year. Nevertheless, we attend because it is good fun, and we have a genial principal who agress to subsidize the club. Tournaments at Osgoode (York University's Law department), McGill, and Hart House (University of Toronto) follow the British Parliamentary format. Queen's and the University of Western Ontario follow Canadian Parliamentary.
University tournaments are highly competitive, drawing in debaters from both private and public schools across the country. These tournaments also serve as 'qualifiers' for others, such as the North American Oxford Cup - which is itself a qualifier for the Oxford Cup in Oxford, England. This year, regional and provincial tournaments were cancelled as a result of the teachers union putting an end to extracurricular activities in Ontario, so Hart House served as the qualifier for the National Championships. The running of high school tournaments is relegated to first-years in the club, who were often high school debaters themselves, so there are a lot of familiar faces at these tournaments.
Dozens, possibly hundreds of schools across Canada participate in these tournaments, often sending teams across the country for some of the bigger ones, but a few schools have made a name for themselves in the debate community. These 'Big Players' have an established debate culture, and experienced coaches who uphold their reputations. As a result, many finals rounds at tournaments end up being between teams from these schools.
Upper Canada College - One of Canada's premier institutions, these guys are your typical prep school debaters. Most of them a nice enough, although you get the occaisional annoying brat who smoke cigarettes to show that despite his six-figure net worth he's got problems, man. They're probably the sharpest dressed team at every tournament; the rest of us show up in $20 H&M dress shirts and skinny ties.
Northern Secondary School - Northern is a public school in Toronto. They're eccentric. They have been known to rap about circumcision as a segue into an argument about body rights. They also refuse to abide by the debater's dress code (generally at least a dress shirt and a tie) because they want to show that they can kick UCC's asses in jeans and a GAP hoodie. Northern has produced some hilarious (and also very intelligent) speakers.
Halifax Grammer School - A private school in Halifax, Nova Scotia. These guys, along with Sacred Heart (a girls only private school in Halifax) have made Nova Scotia one of the stronger provinces at the National Championships. Debaters from HGS have also qualified for the Oxford Cup for the last three years in a row. They all have that cute Atlantic Canadian accent that catches you off-guard in North America.
Thornhill & Richmond Hill High School(s) - Both public schools in the environs of Toronto. A team from Richmond Hill were the Canadian High School Champions in 2011-2012.
White Oaks Secondary School - WOSS is a sprawling public school in Oakville, a rather well-off suburb west of Toronto. Their coach, the estimable Mr. Hamish Guthrie, has been involved in debate for three decades. He's a perfect image of an eccentric British school teacher, and a really nice guy. In 2012-2013 they won the tournaments at McGill and the University of Western Ontario.